Mike Brown, a University of Wyoming professor of communication and journalism, recently returned from a trip to Kazakhstan where he was searching for evidence of a group of Russian Germans — known as Volga Germans because of their proximity to the Volga River — who were sent to a Karlag, one of the largest Soviet labor camps in its history.
But the search wasn’t purely academic — it has a personal connection to Brown.
“My grandfather was a Volga German, and this is part of what got me excited about this,” he said. “He came here in 1912 because his father predicted the revolution and said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’”
When the Soviets sent people to labor camps, Brown said they were often sent to Siberia. He said many of those people were actually sent to Kazakhstan where some of the largest gulags in the system were located.
“That was one thing I learned while I was over there was that whole region was sort of considered Siberia, or at least the northern part of Kazakhstan,” Brown said. “It was the Soviet’s dumping ground for their unwanted peoples.”
The most recent trip was actually Brown’s third time in Kazakhstan, where he went to teach classes and advise master’s degree and Ph.D. students at the Al-Farabi National Kazakh University. Brown said one of the interesting things about Kazakhstan — besides that it resembles parts of Wyoming with its lilacs and cottonwood trees — is there are 160 different ethnic groups that speak 80 different languages.
“We think of (the U.S.) as the melting pot, but that’s something,” he said. “And they promote that as one of their strengths is diversity.”
The Volga Germans living in Russia kept their language and maintained several cultural aspects, Brown said. After Germany declared war on the Soviet Union during World War II, he said 400,000 Volga Germans were shipped to Kazakhstan and parts of Siberia as suspected spies.
“Anyone of German heritage was immediately shipped away,” Brown said. “They just put them in cattle cars and shipped them east.”
Brown is continuing to work with the American Society of Germans from Russia to find any evidence of what happened to their Volga German descendants. Though they were granted access by the Kazakh government to search Soviet-era archives, Brown and his Kazakh colleagues didn’t find the documents they were searching for.
“We were hoping to find transportation records, real records from the Soviets that said this person arrived here on this day,” Brown said.
However, they did find a list of people who were executed at the camp, Brown said. Of those names, they were able to identify 80 that are German.
During a conference in August, Brown is planning to take the names to the American Society of Germans from Russia to see if anyone can find a connection to the names that would help them tell the story of their families.
“I’ll take those names and just make those available for everyone to look through,” Brown said.
There are still Volga Germans and other Germans in Kazakhstan, though many went back to Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Brown said. But as time goes on, he said it’s harder to continue finding people who are interested in that part of their heritage. This means the research Brown is assisting with is working against the clock, he said.
“I’m just trying to figure out how we can get to the people that remained there that are German and have an interest in knowing these connections, because in a couple of generations, it will be gone,” he said.
Brown said he’s tentatively planning another trip to Kazakhstan that would allow him and his colleagues to continue searching for evidence of the 400,000 Volga Germans that went to the gulag. Though he knows his grandfather didn’t go, people who he knew did.
Whether it’s for his personal interest or for the historical record in general, Brown said they are at the front end of the research that continues to fascinate him.
“Part of this is family history, but part is this broader sense of history, as well,” he said.